Shuttle flights were grounded after Discovery's mission earlier this year because of concerns about falling foam from the external fuel tank. Now, Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale says the space agency is working on a tentative launch schedule, with no official date date set yet. "It appears that the May launch window is something that we can begin to work toward now. That launch window, our orbital trajectory folks tell me, extends from May 3rd to May 23rd," says Hale.
Foam is the critical issue that's holding-up the next launch as engineers examine each step of the process that covers the huge external tanks with insulation. Rick Gilbrech leads the team that's examining the problem and says it appears workers may have damaged the foam while preparing the tank for launch. "The major finding we found was this tank was re-worked to a level that none of the other tanks prior had been and we suspect that handling damage or collateral damage, which is basically risk to the foam from technicians that have to be there and doing their work, we think is a potential contributor," he says.
He's also quick to point out that the damage was inadvertent.
Shuttle planners also say they'll begin replacing some of the 24,000 tiles on Discovery's belly before the next launch. The new tiles are much stronger and more resistant to debris strikes than the current ones. Hale says not all of the tile will be replaced. "What we're looking toward is the critical areas around the main landing-gear door openings for example, and other critical areas on the bottom of the orbiter, replacing tile in those areas, so if those areas get struck, they will be more protected," he says.
During the last Discovery mission, astronauts had to inspect the underside of the shuttle after it was struck with foam debris during launch.